How to Celebrate Cinco de Mayo With as Much Respect as Revelry

For most of us, Cinco de Mayo brings to mind tequila shots, sombreros, and drunken college kids eating burritos and guac. However, this Mexican holiday is more than just an excuse to drink half-price margs at your local Mexican chain. Cinco de Mayo is actually a time to celebrate an important event in Mexican history, and it started off as a day of commemoration and activism. Here's how to celebrate Cinco de Mayo respectfully while still partaking in the fun.

What Are the Origins of Cinco de Mayo?

Most Americans grew up celebrating this Mexican holiday, but few ever learned the true history of Cinco de Mayo. Although some confuse it with Mexico's Independence Day, this is actually on September 16th. Cinco de Mayo means "May 5" in Spanish, and is a celebration of Mexico's victory over France in the Battle of Puebla, which happened back in 1862 on May 5th.

battle of puebla painting
Wikimedia Commons: Francisco de Paula Mendoza

The war began in 1861 when the Mexican president Benito Juárez stopped paying Mexico's debt payments. In response, Napoleon III sent French troops to invade Mexico. The Mexican army's victory was unexpected, which is likely partly why the holiday was born. However, as exciting as the moment was, it was short lived. France succeeded in taking over Mexico and placing Maximilian I in power. Finally, in 1867, the Mexican Republic overturned the French rule and took back control over their country.

Although the celebration originated in Puebla, a region southeast of Mexico City, it's now celebrated throughout Mexico and across the United States. Despite Americans' tendency to drink margaritas and wear sombreros on this day, it started off as a serious historical moment.

On the first year it was celebrated, Americans, Mexicans and Mexican Americans came together to celebrate the anniversary of the battle and use the moment to raise money and recruit more people to fight against the French army. It was a time to stand up for democracy and freedom against white supremacy, marking an important part of the Mexican-American civil rights movement.

How to Celebrate Cinco De Mayo Respectfully

Mexican food flat lay - top view of chips, salsas, fresh ingredients and margaritas
Getty Images/Kristen Prahl

There's been a movement in recent years to bring this holiday back to its roots and away from the cultural appropriation that often accompanies it. There are ways to enjoy the day without ignoring its cultural significance or being disrespectful to Mexican culture. In fact, this holiday is the perfect opportunity to celebrate Mexican culture and heritage. We're not saying that you shouldn't have fun or drink some tequila! Just that you can do so while also honoring the history and culture of the holiday.

As explained by Wide Open Country editor Silke Jasso, "Cinco De Mayo has become a way for Americans to honor not only Mexican culture, but our heritage. It's become a day that commemorates our past ancestors victory and dedication to our country. It's a day we can wave our flag high and celebrate with family, friends, and strangers around the world."

Here are 4 ways to celebrate Cinco de Mayo respectfully:

1. Learn the Real History

battle of Puebla illustration
Wikimedia Commons: B.C.S

The most important thing you can do on this springtime holiday is to educate yourself on its history. Before drinking your margarita and assembling your tacos, learn about the holiday and your origins. Simply talking about the history of Cinco de Mayo is a great start to honoring Mexican heritage.

2. Support Mexican Businesses

Rather than hitting up Taco Bell or Qdoba, try to support the locally owned Mexican businesses in your area. Hit up the local Mexican restaurant for your festivities, or check out a Mexican museum or pottery store. If you're going to celebrate a Mexican holiday, it's only fair to give back to Mexican businesses in the process.

3. Honor Mexican Culture

Mariachi Band
Getty Images/DOUGBERRY

Another way to educate yourself is to experience authentic Mexican culture. Whether that means listening to traditional Mexican music, attempting to make a Mexican dish at home, or watching a movie made by a Mexican or Mexican-American director, it's important to acknowledge the rich culture of Mexico while celebrating one of its major holidays.

4. Donate to Mexican Organizations

Along the same lines as number 2, one of the best ways to celebrate Cinco de Mayo respectfully is to give back to the community you're celebrating. If you can buy a few margaritas and plates of guac, you can probably afford to send $50 to an organization helping Mexican immigrants. Donate to the National Immigration Law Center, the American Immigration CouncilUnited We Dream, or choose one of these organizations listed at Borgen Project that are fighting poverty in Mexico.

What Not to Do on Cinco De Mayo

Mexican Dress Colorful
Getty Images/sassy1902

Now that you have some ideas for how to celebrate this Mexican holiday with respect, here are some things to avoid doing on Cinco de Mayo:

1. Don't Joking Speak "Spanish"

Don't use this holiday as an excuse to speak an Americanized version of Spanish. Don't call the holiday "Cinco de Drinko," and don't drunkenly call yourself "borracho" or add an "o" to English words to make them "Spanish." Doing this trivializes the holiday and degrades Mexican culture overall.

2. Don't Appropriate Mexican Culture

Mariachi sombrero hat
Getty Images/carterito

You can celebrate a Mexican holiday without appropriating its culture. Enjoy Mexican food and music, but definitely don't wear a sombrero or fake mustache while you do it. Avoid any "Mexican costume," and don't use this holiday as a time to promote negative stereotypes. Mexicans and Mexican Americans experience daily racism for simply existing, so pretending to be Mexican for the night for fun is as disrespectful as it gets.

3. Don't Lump All Latino Communities Together

Don't assume that all Latino communities celebrate Cinco de Mayo. Assuming that all of the cultures in Latin America are the same is just another form of racism. Mexico is very different than Peru, which is very different than Bolivia. Each Latin American country has its own culture and history, and you won't find any Cinco de Mayo celebrations south of Mexico.

For more inspiration on how to commemorate and enjoy this Mexican holiday, check out #ReclaimCinco on Instagram.

READ MORE: What is Authentic Mexican Food, and Does It Even Exist?

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